Despite the economic pressures of World War II, Reilly and Lee decided to continue their tradition of an annual Oz book, turning one more time to illustrator John R. Neill, who responded by producing yet another not particularly good book, Lucky Bucky in Oz.
I cannot remember if I read this book when I was a kid. I think not, but I can’t be sure, largely because I’m having problems remembering the book now, minutes after I finished reading it. For that matter, when I got to the end, I had problems remembering the beginning.
By now, however, John R. Neill was closer to mastering the basics—the very basics—of novel writing, and scattered here and there are moments which show just how much Oz had sparked Neill’s imagination: a talking wooden whale named Davy Jones, whose insides are filled with pies, costumes, and occasionally pirates; the pirates (incidentally demonstrating that Ozma’s Stop Piracy Through Nonconsensual Transformations was not just morally questionable but an abject failure); magical rivers wrenched from their beds to new places; Dollfins who want a girl, but are willing to settle for using a boy as a hostage; and, for a change in the Neill books, an actual somewhat coherent plot. It doesn’t sound dull. It shouldn’t be dull. Did I mention the pirates? The pies? And yet, dull it is.
Not because of the inconsistencies or the timeline that does not, however much I tried to make sense of it, make sense, or the way bits of new plots are swiftly introduced and as swiftly dropped; as a Lost fan, I’ve developed a high tolerance for this sort of thing. Or even because of the weird paean to the Statue of Liberty and an appearance by Uncle Sam, presumably inspired by and tossed in because of World War II patriotism. I might add that Uncle Sam’s patriotic moment is somewhat undercut when he turns out to be a member of an exclusive country club of various uncles who spend their time loudly objecting to the way rivers get up and move around to the detriment of the club. Even in context I honestly can’t tell you if this is meant to be ironic or not. It’s mostly, well, weird. I kept expecting Uncle Sam to break into the National Anthem or urge us to buy war bonds, but no, he just lives in Oz (kindly enough not interfering with Ozma’s rule) and chatters to Bucky. Not that we hear any of the dialogue.
No, I think most of the dullness stems from Lucky Bucky, the hero, a young American whose chief character trait is just that—luck. Which leads to another narrative problem: anything that goes wrong or might seem to go wrong for Bucky gets solved by pure luck or inexplicable inspirations or wizardly apprentices who are apparently time-traveling without they or the narrative realizing it (time travel isn’t explicitly mentioned, but only that or bad editing can make the plot work.) And at the end, Bucky is exactly the same person that he was at the beginning, unchanged in any respect. I suppose that’s par for the course in most Oz books, which rarely feature character growth, but the other books at least usually featured some adventure, some challenge, or some danger. I can’t find anything really wrong with Bucky. I can’t find anything really interesting either.
And although the book, as a whole, is better written than the other two Neill books (which is not saying much) it feels less original, partly because some of it really isn’t. The main characters seem overly inspired by Pinocchio with only the slightest of twists: wooden boy gets swallowed by whale in one, human boy gets swallowed by wooden whale in another. (Lucky Bucky in Oz was published after the release of the Disney film and well after the publication of the original book, although I am not sure when Neill began to write the book or if he saw the Disney film.) And in a second borrowing, Bucky and Davy literally travel to Oz over a rainbow. Sigh. I am willing to believe that Neill somehow missed seeing Pinocchio, but not that he missed the MGM Wizard of Oz film. And in a final borrowing, instead of creating a new villain, Neill chose to bring back Mombi the witch in what is by far the least convincing and suspenseful of her three appearances. Nor does it help to realize that once again, Neill has a tendency to forget his own plot while writing the book.
Oh, and yes! Ozma fail, back for your enjoyment (ahem), as Ozma allows the Wizard to kidnap a volcano and its inhabitants, all bakers of excellent pies, because he wants to use the volcano as a…decoration? Erk. The Wizard attempts to justify this by explaining that the kidnapping will keep the bakers safe from pirate attacks, which, ok, fine, but why not explain this benefit to the bakers first, before removing them to Oz without a word of discussion, let alone their consent, first?
But if the text is dull, and Ozma’s moral and leadership qualities remain questionable, the illustrations are utterly delightful, a sure sign that Neill’s genius lay in art, not words. It was a genius that had helped bring a fairyland to life.
I haven’t spoken much about the illustrations of the Oz books, mostly because I don’t know much about book illustration, but if you have a chance, do yourself a favor, and grab an Oz book with the Neill illustrations, and study the astonishing detail and whimsy of his pictures, the way he brings the fantastic to life.
This was, tragically, the last of the Famous Forty Oz books to be illustrated by Neill, who died the year after the publication of Lucky Bucky in Oz. He left one more manuscript for an Oz book, The Runaway in Oz, but probably since Neill did not have time to complete the illustrations, Reilly and Lee chose not to publish it, instead turning to a long time Oz fan, Jack Snow, to continue the series. The Runaway in Oz, with illustrations by Eric Shanower, was eventually published by Books of Wonder in 1995, as a final cap to Neill’s magical, fantastic career.
Sidenote: The original first edition of the book, published in 1942, urges children to buy Victory Bonds and Stamps, adding the message that “Nothing makes you as brave as knowing that somebody is helping you.” I have no idea how common this sort of thing was in children’s books at the time.
Mari Ness ended up consuming a shocking amount of pie while composing this entry. These things happen. She lives in central Florida.